Dissatisfied with off-the-shelf technology solutions targeted towards corporate legal departments, VillageMD General Counsel Wendy Rubas decided to build her own system in-house, and hired seven graduates of the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Master of Science in Law (MSL) program to do it.
I had an opportunity to ask Wendy and her team about the “make or buy” decision and how they went about achieving their goals. What follows is their story:
Wendy Rubas: I am the General Counsel of a growing healthcare technology company. Over the last few years, my team of legal professionals have built a legal operating system that has revolutionized the way our team approaches matter management, document management, and reporting. I have previous experience implementing Legal Department systems and have been disappointed with the experience of buying expensive software that did not live up to the promised potential. When I came into my current role, I decided to try to build my own system using the Microsoft SharePoint list. Instead of spending my limited budget on software licenses, I would invest in people to help me run the systems. This is something people (especially in Legal Departments) often underestimate: whether you build or buy a system – it does not run itself!
One of the biggest breakthroughs was discovering a new type of legal professional (also known as legal engineers, technologists, or analysts) and started recruiting them to help me. My first hire, Janessa Nelson, understood exactly what I was hoping to do and with the help of the other legal professionals has taken the system beyond what I had envisioned. I have now hired seven legal professionals who are Northwestern Law master’s trained in science, business, and law, but are not lawyers. In other words, they speak “lawyer,” but think differently (this is key!). Every general counsel should hear what they have to say.
“A company does not have legal information. It has information that needs to flow through the Legal Department and back out.”
VillageMD LegalTech Team (Janessa Nelson, Greg Amenta, Arqam Khan, Mical Tesfazghi Yibrah, Amanda Burke, Orkidea Bajrami, Miguel Sandejas): It is hard to describe our work in a title. We all have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) backgrounds and graduated from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Master of Science in Law (MSL) program where we all had our individualized focuses. The MSL program immersed us into a new interdisciplinary way of thinking and approaching legal work.
We have collectively seen the value of converting information from spreadsheets into databases (SharePoint lists). From there we have made this information interactive and analytic including showing live data using Power BI. For example, one of our senior paralegals wanted a way to simulate the old-school corporate minute book (the leather-bound binder that held important corporate documents, minutes, and stock certificates). Using PowerApps, we created a way to interact with corporate documents that elevates this experience and makes it much easier for people to find what they are looking for. Here is a look at the interface:
As is often the case, our path forward wasn’t exactly linear. But looking back we can identify some breakthrough moments that propelled us forward:
Breakthrough #1: The first breakthrough came while building processes to auto-generate documents. Wendy was doubtful that anyone would use them. She assumed that the workforce would prefer to discuss matters with lawyers directly. Surprisingly, after several months, we saw that our self-service tools were being used hundreds of times per month. Lawyers save time, emails, and it is a major client satisfier because they get results instantly! Who knows? Maybe clients prefer not having to deal with lawyers!
Breakthrough #2 Sharon Pointer: We then built document intake and reminder processes, and encouraged employees to use them. We kept hitting a wall when we told them we were using SharePoint. Either they did not understand what we meant or just did not believe us. Eventually we referred to the system as “Sharon Pointer.” For example we’d say: “Sharon will file that for you and give you reminders when it expires.” We even gave Sharon an avatar and an email account. It seems inexplicable, but this was a breakthrough. People could just relate to the system better when it had a person’s name. Sometimes they complain about Sharon and if convenient we just blame Sharon for things (“You know how Sharon is!”). At this point, many people at this company believe Sharon is a real human!
Sharon has continued to grow, and we are so proud of her maturity we made this diagram to illustrate her growth:
Breakthrough #3: What started as a goal to build Legal Department software ended up expanding into something bigger, and this felt like another breakthrough. As development of legal software systems accelerates, we have found most of these systems inherently limited in utility. A company does not have legal information, it has information that needs to flow through the Legal Department and back out. When individual departments buy their own systems (usually customized database products), critical information is siloed into disparate systems that do not intersect. Our goal was to build a legal operating system, but we ended up with a multi-dimensional system intersecting with many other parts of the company. This is a huge strategic advantage.
The diagram below illustrates the current scope of the VillageMD legal operating system (each red box represents a SharePoint list):
The result of these breakthroughs is smoother information flow into and back out of the Legal Department, which makes our entire business run better. Combining our expertise with that of the VillageMD lawyers has been instrumental in maximizing integration throughout our organization as a whole. The ability to combine legal knowledge with STEM knowhow is a strong competitive advantage allowing us to innovative in a space that didn’t allow for such before. Wendy believes that our new type of legal professionals will truly disrupt the legal industry. At first we really didn’t think so but now we clearly understand she was correct.
Innovation is a journey and continual process of development, with plateaus and breakthroughs along the way. We all look forward to building the next innovative tool for Sharon at VillageMD.
Editor’s Note: The American Society of Legal Engineers recognizes innovations in the legal ecosystem by publicizing and awarding outstanding efforts to improve law with people, process and technology. Have an innovation you’d like to share or refer? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.